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Published in CenterView on February 10, 2014

Nightmarish past fuels Jackson Free Clinic creator’s missions

By Gary Pettus

By the time Joyce Essien was 8, her wonderful life in Nigeria began to fall apart.

For two or three years, the girl who would become Dr. Joyce Olutade lived in a place where she had to walk past the bodies of people killed by bullets, where young women sold their bodies for money to buy food, where the homeless passed through like ghosts on the road to starvation.

That she saw all these things as a girl too young to be of help does not explain why she became a doctor, but it may explain the type of doctor she became.

“Joyce is a woman of action,” said Dr. Lessa Phillips, medical director of United Healthcare and former chair of family medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who hired Olutade years ago. “She has an indelible sense of morality and integrity, especially when it comes to relieving health disparities.”

Now an assistant professor of family medicine, Olutade has been, since October, the medical director for Student/Employee Health.

But for many of her colleagues and former students, her preeminent title is creator of the Jackson Free Clinic, the medical refuge that for nearly 12 years has served the working poor.

She recently left her position as the clinic’s medical director in the hands of Dr. David Norris, but Olutade remains on the board and volunteers at the clinic, where patients in many ways resemble those she also sees, yearly, in the country where she was born.

CalabarIt was more than 50 years ago, in Calabar, Nigeria, that she became the third child of a man who already gained two sons but had lost his mother and both sisters. He had wished for a girl, and when he got one, he named her Ini-Abasi – “in God’s time,” or “God’s time is best.”

Joyce, the baby’s middle name, is English, the common language among the many tongues spoken in a country colonized by the British.

Called Ini or Joyce (“Joy see”) by her friends, she had few cares during the first eight years of her life, playing soccer against the boys and living comfortably with her siblings on the salary of Jeremiah Essien, the director of a teachers’ training college.

She attended church, one of the best schools around and family celebrations heaping with fish, plantain, cocoyam, rice, chicken soup and kegs of palm wine.

Then, in 1968, the war came, she said, and “disrupted my beautiful childhood.”

In the war of secession that produced the country of Biafra, people on both sides suffered. In Uyo, where the teachers’ college was located, Biafra’s army converted the school into a barracks and kept her father on as administrator, until it arrested him.

Dr. Olutade's original 1987 copy of book written by her father
Dr. Olutade's original 1987 copy of book written by her father

Falsely accused of disloyalty, he would not see his family for two years, a period of despair he describes in his book, In the Shadow of Death. Alone with six children, his wife supervised the barracks kitchen in order to survive.

In the village where Essien’s family had tried to retreat from the war, Joyce now played hide-and-seek with air-raid bombs instead of with her friends. Almost daily during the last year of the war, she walked past the bodies.
“As a child, after a while, you just shut that out,” Olutade said.

Long before she witnessed this misery, she knew who she would become. Her future was set in the city of Ibadan, known to her for two things: its medical college and her uncle.

“My uncle was the first African doctor I knew,” she said. “When I was 3 or 4, he would bring us presents.”

At one point, he was her guardian. His example and encouragement are the reasons she went to medical school, where she met another student, Dr. Tunde Olutade, a nephrologist and her future husband.

Trained as an ophthalmologist, Joyce Olutade accompanied her new husband to America, after he earned a fellowship in nephrology at Emory University in Atlanta. Later, they lived in Virginia, where he also practiced family medicine in a medically needy area. She liked what she saw of his practice there.

When they returned to Atlanta and she was denied an ophthalmology residency, she switched to family medicine, and has been there ever since.

But Atlanta in the 1980s was getting too big and too fast for the couple and their children. They looked for a smaller place, “a place where we could make a difference,” she said.

“We prayed about it. We ended up in Mississippi through prayer – and leads. Before that, if you had told me I would be moving here one day, I would have said, ‘You must be joking.’”

To her delight, she found the people here friendly and gracious. She also found many of them poor.

Her idea for a student-run free clinic was based on one she had seen in action during a short fellowship in San Diego. Like that one, the clinic that opened in Jackson in 2002 was for the homeless.

Dr. Olutade works with a patient at the Jackson Free Clinic in 2010
Dr. Olutade works with a patient at the Jackson Free Clinic in 2010

“What we discovered, though, was that the majority of the people who came here had jobs, but couldn’t afford insurance,” Olutade said. Soon, the clinic dropped “homeless” from its name.

At UMMC, the Department of Family Medicine had taken the clinic on as a project, Phillips said.

“Joyce gave untold hours to it,” she said. “She will say that the students did it all. But, if not for her, it wouldn’t have happened.”

One of Olutade’s former students is Dr. Shannon Pittman, associate professor of family medicine.

“I once came in for an exam under her and I wasn’t ready,” Pittman said. “She made it clear that she was prepared, and I should be prepared. She didn’t lower the bar.

“Dr. Olutade has an expectation of excellence. She doesn’t expect anything from others that she doesn’t expect from herself. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Both Pittman and Phillips have been on medical missions to Africa, including Nigeria, where they train doctors and nurses to screen women for cervical cancer, a major killer.

They travel with a physician who remembers those two or three years of terror she faced as a young girl, running scared from the sound of bombs and gunfire, too panicked and young to be of any help to those suffering on the ground.

In the country where she was born —and in the country where she now lives — Dr. Joyce Olutade is able to help them now. God’s time is best.